Sense of History: an unfinished draft of an undergraduate history textbook by Robert C. Binkley, 1939-40. This transcription is not yet fully corrected.

The Four Most Recent Ages

In trying to understand what happens in longer historic periods, these five hundred year ages, it is convenient to think of a time sequence in which each century is numbered. We are living in the twentieth of these numbered centuries since the birth of Christ. Most students have at some time memorized a few dates of certain [p.008] events in these two thousand years. The date 476 is often noted as marking the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, the date 1066 was the year of the Norman Conquest of England, the date 1492 of the discovery of America. These dates come about five hundred years apart.

For purposes of rough calculation we might think of the last two thousand years as forming four "ages" of five hundred years each. The most recent we might call the modern age, or the age of competing states. It might run from 1440 to 1940; the one prior to that we might call the feudal age, from 940 to 1440; the one before that we could identify as the barbarian age, from 440 to 940; and the one before that as the Roman age, from 60 B.C. to 440 A.D. Then the birth of Christ would fall in the early Roman Age, the "fall of Rome" in the early Barbarian age, the Norman Conquest of England in the early feudal age, and the discovery of America in the early modern age.

Of course these are merely conventional names applied to these successive ages for convenience. The flow of events was and still is unbroken, continuous; and if we roughly divide each of these five hundred year "ages" into an "early", "high" and "late" era, then each of these subdivisions will cover a span of years similar to the life-time, to date, of the United States. One of these subdivisions will be the Era of Nationalism.

These divisions of time will be most easily held in mind if we think of them as marked out proportionately on a straight line.

(Straight line charts and four maps)

If we were to extend these five hundred year "ages" back through pre-Roman times we would reach in seven or eight more steps (about 4000 B.C.) the earliest evidences of what we call civilization, that is to say, of human life lived in cities under conditions which we would recognize, though remotely perhaps, as corresponding to civilized as distinguished from savage life today. Four steps back of that, 6000 B.C., the village organization, with grain cultivation, domestic animals, and the simple crafts of pottery, weaving and polished stone tool-making had arrived.

A simple long-term historical chronology, according to the estimates of V. Gordon Childe, would run as follows:

[p.009] Let us now try to form a more definite image of these four successive ages. First take a map, and draw a great sweeping circle around the Mediterranean Sea. Take in half of England, go through southern Germany, then down the Danube and around Asia Minor and Syria, then enclose Egypt and North Africa. This is the area of the Roman World. And think of that part of the Bible story of the life of Jesus which tells of his coming to Jerusalem — the city, the crowds, the marketing, the local priestly government, and the austere Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The Roman world was a world in which life was organized with cities at the center. And of course there were also the villages — like Bethlehem, like Nazareth, so set in the open country that shepherds could come directly from watching their flocks to witness events in the village. Think of Paul, who as a Roman citizen was protected in a Syrian town by Roman law. Think of these things when you think of the Roman age.

Then take the map and draw a new line — the line of barbarian Europe. It will be, roughly, the whole continent of Europe, but it will not take in the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean. For these are the areas of Greek and Mohammadan or Arabic civilization. If you would think of these Greek and Mohammadan areas in the Barbarian age, think of some scene from the Arabian Nights, where there is still a seething city life, and wealthy merchants are dealing in precious wares. But that is not Europe of the Barbarian Age. To see this barbarian Europe, forget the city, and think of a lumber camp, where rough men live in wooden houses or shacks, or think of a quiet village of huts and cabins from which men go out daily to toil in the surrounding fields. From time to time there are tribes in movement. Caravans of Goths move across Southern France and shiploads of Saxons arrive on the English shores in the early barbarian age, and Vikings from the North come up the rivers in their ships, hordes of mounted Hungarians sweep into the Danubian plains, in the late barbarian age. By the end of the barbarian age the tribal movements have ended; the people of Western Europe are mostly living where their descendants live to this day.

In the early barbarian age these peoples are mostly pagan; by the end of the late barbarian age they have all become Christian. Those in the east (modern Russia) took their Christianity from Byzantium; those in the west took it from Rome.

And now cut a line through the map of barbarian Europe; run it through the eastern part of Poland, include Hungary, and come out somewhere on the Adriatic Sea. This is the area of Feudal Europe, of Latin Christendom; it is the Europe of the Feudal Age. Think of [p.010] the great cathedrals, most of the greatest of them completed in the 13th century, the century that built cathedrals as the nineteenth century built railroads. That should serve to remind you that Feudal Europe is church centered. But it will be well to think also of the castle, of the knight in armour, and of the people such as Chaucer describes in his Canterbury Tales.

Then the modern age, the age of states. Again, like the barbarian age, a time in which people moved to new lands, but this time to the great open spaces of the New World and the great plains and forests of eastern Russia. For its early years think of the world of Shakespeare, the Shakespearian costumes of Queen Elizabeth, of Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh. For the middle part of the modern age — the seventeenth century — think of the Pilgrim Fathers with their puritan religion and their dress. And then you arrive at the late modern age — from George Washington to Roosevelt.

Once again the map will change. From the Western Europe, the Christendom, of the Feudal Age, it will become the whole surface of the globe.

We are not very far from the dawn of civilization. Only ten or twelve of these ages have run their course. We can think of each of these ages as divided into an early, middle, and late era, and each era as made up of six or seven generations. The year 1940, according to this scheme, comes at the end of the generation of the Long Armistice, and of Era of Nationalism, which is the Late Era of the Modern Age.

When we say that this year marks the end of a generation, an era and an age, this does not mean that it is in any sense a special turning point, such as would come only once in five centuries. It means only that it has been selected as the point of reference from which the course of history will be examined. The whole of man's past always comes to a point today, and will come to a point again tomorrow. The most important moment is always that moment at which the past meets the future, and we are always there to see it.